Structure is key to keeping team on track

Recent surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction in the workforce. It doesn’t surprise Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters Inc., an Atlanta-based corporate training company.

“Companies are continuing to ask employees to do more with less,” she said. “In a difficult economic environment with high unemployment, employees are fearful to speak up when asked to take on extra work. There’s also been a seismic shift in technology with the growth of social media in business, leaving some on board and others behind.”

Technology contributes to worker distraction, according to a May 2011 USA Today survey. It found that more than half of U.S. workers lose an hour a day to email, texting and other interruptions, costing businesses $10,790 a year per employee in lost productivity.

“Workplace cultures of fear, uncertainty and distraction lead to low morale and low motivation, and that leads to lower productivity,” Brownlee said.

When the economy is flowing, companies can compensate workers with salary bonuses, incentive gifts and more training. “Lacking those resources, managers need to find other ways to motivate their teams,” she said.

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She advises leaders to take a step back in order to move forward. “Smart managers know that providing a strong structure and foundation is the most important element in getting and keeping a team on track,” Brownlee said.

“Developing a team charter is a key step that many overlook, but I haven’t seen any team that wouldn’t benefit from creating an agreement on how they’ll work together,” she added.

A charter is a collaborative effort created by team members and key stakeholders, such as sponsors and clients. “It should cover the mission, goals and purpose of the team, as well as consider the scope of work, how success will be measured and under what ground rules the team will operate,” Brownlee said.

“Having this conversation provides a sense of direction and clarity for the team. It addresses issues upfront and prevents problems down the road. For every minute that you spend creating a structure, you’ll save three later,” she said.

When teams have charters, there’s less role overlap, fewer tasks left undone, more accountability and fewer frustrations. It’s also easier to bring new team members up to speed. “It should be a living, breathing agreement that is all about being intentional, deliberate and holding people accountable,” she said.

“Consistency in operation” was what Marisa Benson wanted for her team when Emory University created a centralized project management office for information technology in 2008.

“I was pulling project managers from different departments, with different backgrounds, skills and ways of doing things,” said Benson, director of the project management office, University Technology Services for Emory University. “The interesting thing is that we work across all departments with no authority to tell people what to do, but with ultimate responsibility for information technology. I knew we’d have to lead by influence.”

She began by having team members assess their individual strengths and weaknesses. They then discussed the level of knowledge and skills that would be needed for a project management team to add value to the organization.

In three years, the 12-member team has earned more technology certifications, but the team members also have taken courses together in the fundamentals of project management, presentation and communication skills, team building, meeting planning and management, many taught by Professionalism Matters Inc.

“More money isn’t always a great motivator,” Benson said. She’s found that her team of creative managers values autonomy, mastering new skills, getting to work on the latest equipment or being part of the coolest projects.

They do team charters for most team projects to establish purpose and how they’ll relate to one another. “We’ve built a highly motivated, cohesive team and created a culture of having each other’s backs,” Benson said.

Angela Bostick, assistant dean of marketing and communications for the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, said she believes that developing team charters keeps her team effective and efficient.

Having created multiple charters, they can adapt their template easily for similar projects and start fresh when moving into uncharted territory. “Having a formal process keeps us honest, motivated and focused on achieving our goals,” she said.

She finds the upfront time worthwhile. “Everyone gets to have input and express their expectations and vision, so there’s universal buy-in,” she said. “That has strengthened us as a department."

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